Sarah quickly finished dressing as the morning sun streamed into her bedroom. She was so excited that she could hardly button her shirt. She’d been counting the days till her tenth birthday for weeks, and it was finally here.
She hurried downstairs to the kitchen. “Morning, Mom; morning, Dad,” she said, planting a kiss on each cheek and slipping into her seat at the breakfast table.
“Happy birthday, honey.” Her mother was making Sarah’s favorite breakfast—strawberry pancakes.
“How’s my birthday girl?” asked Dad squeezing her shoulders.
There it was, next to her plate. A little velvet box. Ever since her best friend, Sally, got a real ring on her last birthday, Sarah had been pleading for one of her own. Sally’s was beautiful—ruby red with a rhinestone on each side that glistened in the sun. Sarah gingerly touched the fuzzy fabric.
“Go ahead—open it,” Mom said from the stove.
Her heart pounding, Sarah closed her eyes and lifted the lid. When she opened them again, her heart sank. Nestled inside the beautiful little box was a plain silver ring with a tiny stone that looked like glass, not the brightly colored gem she had imagined. And the ring didn’t even look new.
“Do you like it, Sarah?” asked Dad.
Hiding her disappointment, Sarah answered, “A ring is just what I wanted.”
“It was your great-grandmother’s, you know,” Mom said, setting Sarah’s plate in front of her. “It’s an heirloom.”
“It’s very nice. Thanks.” Sarah stared hard at the ring in front of her and swallowed the lump in her throat.
“Here, let me.” Dad leaned across the table and slid the ugly little ring onto Sarah’s finger. He stood up. “I have to leave now, but I’ll be home early for cake.” He winked at Sarah, kissed them both good-bye, and left for work.
Sarah walked slowly down the sidewalk toward school, knowing that Sally would be waiting for her at the corner. There she was. Sarah slowed her steps even more.
“Happy birthday!” Sally called, beaming. “Did you get it? Let me see it.” And before Sarah could pull away, Sally had grabbed her hand and was staring at the ring.
Forcing a smile, Sarah mumbled, “It belonged to my great-grandmother.”
Sally shrugged. “It’s nice,” she said politely, admiring her own hand.
When they got to school, Sarah slipped the ring off and tucked it into her pocket.
That afternoon she went home from school to find her mother hanging paper streamers in the dining room.
“Hi, sweetie, how was your day?” Then, seeing Sarah’s hand, she gasped, “Oh no! You didn’t lose the ring?”
Horrified, Sarah remembered that it was still in her pocket. She pulled it out hurriedly as she stammered, “No, Mom. I took it off because I was afraid of … of losing it and … and …” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t dare look at Mom’s face.
Mom sat down and patted the seat next to her. “You’re a little disappointed with it, aren’t you?” she asked softly.
Sarah started to shake her head but then just nodded and looked down at her lap, blinking back tears.
“I’m sorry, Sarah, that we didn’t give this to you tonight, when we could tell you about it, instead of this morning, when Dad and you had to rush off. Let’s see, where should I begin … ? We did tell you that it’s an heirloom. Do you know what an heirloom is?”
Sarah shook her head.
“Well, it’s like a family treasure. Heirlooms may not always be expensive, but they always have a history, a story to tell. Your ring is special because it has a story of its very own. You see, a long time ago, your great-great-grandparents came to this country from a village in Austria. They loved their home very much but were hoping to build a better life for their children. When your great-grandmother was still a baby, they crossed the ocean in a big ship to Pennsylvania, where your great-great-grandfather worked in the coal mines.
“Their new life was hard. The pay wasn’t good—there were a lot of people just like them from the Old Country, working at the hardest jobs because they didn’t know English, and there wasn’t always work for everybody. Most of all, they missed their home and family back in Austria. But they worked hard, hoping to improve their life here and be able to return to visit.”
Mom took a deep breath. “They never did; they both died when their children were still young. It was very sad. One day, years later, after your great-grandmother was grown and had a family of her own, a letter came from a cousin in Austria. Her father’s land had been sold, and the money was being divided up among all the relatives. There was twenty-five dollars for your great-grandmother in the envelope.
“That was a lot of money then—much more than now—and she thought of all the things that she could buy for her family with it. But instead of spending it, she put it into a drawer for safekeeping, and it stayed there for months. Sometimes she’d take it out and count it. She tried to imagine what her parents’ village was like, and she wondered about her cousins.
“One morning she took the envelope into town to a jewelry shop. She picked out a small silver ring with a diamond chip in the center. It seemed very small on her large hand. It wasn’t one of the nicest rings, but it would represent her family and all that they meant to each other, and the price was just the right amount. She paid for it and took it home, putting it into the same drawer the envelope had been in. And when I was just about your age, she gave it to me and told me to wear it proudly. It was ‘a little piece of my home,’ she said.
“Now we’re giving it to you. It’s a little piece of our family,” she finished. “Do you understand what an heirloom is now?”
Sarah gazed at the ring still clutched in her hand. Hugging her mother, she whispered, “Thanks for telling me, Mom. I’ll be careful with it.” She slipped it back on, and the sun glinted on the tiny stone for a second. Sarah felt as if she herself was shining.
“You’d better go change, or you’ll be late for your own party!” Mom reminded her now. Sarah dashed upstairs. When the doorbell rang a few minutes later, it was Sally. Sarah held out her hand with the ring on it, proclaiming happily, “Wait till you hear all about my ring—it’s an heirloom!”